Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Hiroshima Panels & The Truth of War

The Hiroshima Panels

A little over twenty years ago, I sat in a Quaker Meeting House in a small town west of Des Moines, Iowa, looking at slides of several folding screens painted by the late artist couple, Iri and Toshi Maruki. The screens contain depictions of the horrific aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, and are known world-wide as The Hiroshima Panels. By the time I saw images of those screens, I had seen many photos of the devastation in books, but those screens were different. This was art. A horrific event transformed into art. 

Hiroshima Panels
What was shocking, what the photos had never revealed to me, was movement - the body writhing in pain. And that movement was extremely uncomfortable to witness. I can honestly say that that moment was the first time I really felt the horror of the atomic blast. Those bodies in agony were suddenly alive, in the process of dying. Instead of seeing those images in terms of the past, and so safely distant, I suddenly saw those people – their terror and pain – as something that was happening right in front of me.

It was not hard to come to the conclusion that this should not happen to anyone else, ever again.

It Saved Lives! & Willful Amnesia

Today is the 70th Anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The official US version is a recycling of the same old message: The bomb bay doors opened, the bomb flew out, and the war ended. It saved lives on both sides, so move on. We are a culture that’s good at ‘moving on.’ Of course what we really mean by ‘moving on’ is ‘forgetting.’ In part, this willful forgetting is a refusal to look at the complexities and consequences of war itself.

The US military spent a lot of time and energy on keeping footage of the devastation from the US public in the decades after WWII (See Atomic Cover-up by Greg Mitchell ). In the sanctioned images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no Japanese victims ever appeared. And so it was not only easier to think about the bombings as just, but also to think about nuclear power and nuclear weapons as powerful and deadly, but good – because they were in the right hands.

Official Image

Censored Photo

Twenty years ago, there was controversy over the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Along with the fuselage of the Enola Gay (the B-29 that dropped the first bomb), the Smithsonian staff wanted to include the Hiroshima Panels and some artifacts collected from the aftermath debris. Conservative and WWII veteran’s groups rose up in arms, saying that this inclusion would present the Japanese as victims. The exhibit was eventually scaled back and the story of the consequences of the bomb was dropped.

Weirdly enough, the story of the panels being displayed in the US has fared no better. Very few galleries have been willing to display them over the years. According to Yoshiko Hayakawa, who has  brought the Hiroshima Panels several times to the US, it has always been difficult to find a gallery or museum willing or able to display them. They were last shown here in 1995, in Minnesota. (Japanese art on atomic bombings exhibited in Washington, AP, June 12, 2015

How we see the bombings supports

how we see ourselves now


From my readings, it’s clear that there were many alternatives to dropping the bomb and none of them were pursued. According to Paul Ham (Hiroshima Nagasaki, St. Martin’s Press, 2011), when the decision was made to drop the bomb the planned invasion of the Japanese islands by US troops had already been called off as unfeasible and not needed to end the war.

So, how we tell the story of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki supports how we see ourselves now. To blindly accept the official version – or to ignore the whole thing – is to accept or ignore how we are currently conducting military actions around the world. To accept the official version is to accept (or be willfully ignorant of) the funneling of untold billions into research and development for unneeded weapons of mass destruction. 

It saved lives! This was also the line used by both the Bush and Obama administrations in relation to torture. It is constantly invoked now when anyone questions the various conflicts the US is engaged in around the world – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, The Congo, etc. (according to Washington Blog the US is currently engaged in military conflicts in 74 countries).

Our refusal to examine the motives and horrific consequences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is directly related to our refusal to discuss and question the countless hellfire missiles fired from drones throughout the Middle East and Africa today that murder hundreds of civilians. By reducing such a devastating event to a few simple phrases we shelter ourselves from the complex truth of the past – and so continue to shelter ourselves from the present.


The Hiroshima Panels & The Complex Truth

Detail of Crows
One of the Hiroshima Panels depicts the death of American prisoners of war in the bombing.  Another one portrays the plight of the Korean slaves in the aftermath. The one depicting Koreans is called Crows, a rendering of crows picking at the corpses of Koreans in black ink. The Japanese buried Korean bodies last, reflecting the discrimination that the enslaved Koreans faced even in death. 

The panels portrayed the Japanese as victims, yes, but also as victimizers. This is the truth of war. Forgetting the complexity of this tragedy means that we can continue to see war from only one side: meaning, all of ‘our’ actions are necessarily heroic and all actions on the ‘other side’ are necessarily evil. Note our current media and military influenced kindergarten language that labels victims of drone strikes as ‘the bad guys.’ It’s grotesquely simple. And it helps make the killing that much easier.

On the 70th Anniversary of the first atomic bombing, the panels have finally made it to Washington, DC. They are currently being shown in The American University Museum, located in the Katzen Arts Center at The American University.

Iri & Toshi Maruki

A great series dedicated to the 70th Anniversary on the Al-Jazeera America site can be found here:  

Other articles worth looking at:


Hiroshima Today/70th Commemoration